NOT YOUR TYPICAL HOTEL GRUB: Dante treats culinary standards with exotic flair.
Dante surprises with a successful blend of culinary exploration and the meat-and-potatoes plates required of a major dining room in a large hotel. Chef Dante de Magistris wowed us at Blu, possibly the world’s greatest restaurant in a sports club, and there are some things reminiscent of Blu here: small portions of rich side dishes, crespelles wrapped around veggies, mushroom-crusted scallops, tasting platters on four square subsections, even TVs showing sports over the bar. But since Dante is also in a hotel, there is a steak frîtes entrée with beef so prime it’ll impress visitors from the steak capitals of the Midwest. And if they’re ready to try the basil-roasted Guinea hen, they’ll be even more impressed. It tastes like turkey, not chicken, but guinea hen under the direction of de Magistris is the turkey of your dreams.
The breadbasket initially seems a little light, as it’s comprised of beautiful ultra-thin wheat wafers and mundane sliced white flatbread. The truly remarkable extra-virgin olive oil cruet will get you past that, but the white bread really finds its purpose when you want to sop up the last of a sauce. Appetizers are relatively substantial and can be used as small plates for dinners, or shared. The “mini lobster clambake” ($12) is a baked lobster claw, three small clams, and a cute micro-corndog made with andouille sausage. The sauce is a fennel-seafood reduction, a fair amount, that is thick enough to spoon and good enough to reach for that white bread.
The caramelized-onion tarte ($12) is incredibly flavored in every bite, and nicely sandwiched between wafers of rich pastry and a thin layer of goat cheese. On the side is one slice each of red, green, and yellow tomato with fresh basil. Tuna tartare ($12) comes in a familiar cylinder of bits of raw tuna, leading you to believe that the flavors will be familiar too: capers, sour cream, and micro-greens salad on the side. But each bite is different, and there is a mellowing artichoke effect in several. Homemade spaghetti a la guitarra ($11) neatly upscales a classic from Abruzzo. Instead of pancetta, we have guanciale — air-dried hog jowl with a meatier flavor than pancetta, in a creamy sauce with fresh peas. What looks like a crust of breadcrumbs is sweet Maine crabmeat. The pasta is square, just a little chewy, and deeply satisfying.
You must try the coffee-crusted veal T-bone ($29). The coffee is dusted on, creating a vanilla-like undertone for pink meat (which suggests the calf wasn’t cruelly penned) with actual flavor, somewhere between beef and lamb. The vegetables — tomatoes and peppers, some rather hot — are baked in a square plate with taleggio cheese melted to make something more like fondue than melted cheese. (Breadbasket call.) There is also sautéed arugula involved.
The basil-roasted Guinea hen ($31), while not heavily basil-flavored, had the slight gamey flavor of turkey, plenty of moisture, and a sauce based on wild oyster mushrooms and seasonal vegetables. The steak-frîtes entrée ($28) was a small steak so tender it must have been the old level of prime beef (likely a filet cut), a watercress salad, and entirely competent French fries. The porcini-crusted scallops ($29), an old favorite at Blu, were further fungus-ized with a novel side of large tapioca with truffle, as well as chopped tomatoes, baby spinach, and a pea-pod stem as salad. As with the coffee on the pork chop, the mushroom dust on the sea scallops adds an undertone of richness rather than overt flavor.
The wine list at Dante is very good, but it starts at around $30 a bottle and doesn’t linger at the starting gate. Check the bottle list for vintage years omitted from the by-the-glass section of the menu. Much of the list is friendly to all kinds of food, such as the 2004 Seven Terraces sauvignon blanc ($9/glass; $37/bottle). This is the typical New Zealand bundle of tropical fruit to match any strong flavor, with more body and length than most. Our bottle of Irony Wines’s 2004 “Life’s Strange Twists” pinot noir ($12/$49) was good with beef, veal, and poultry, and would’ve been fine with salmon. This is certainly a pinot noir to savor, with considerable complexity and a long flavor of smoked cherry wood. It tastes older than it is, and is lower in alcohol than listed (14.5 percent). Decaf ($3) is outstanding, and tea ($3) is made loose-leaf in a metal pot.
The hotel guests will probably order a lot of strawberry-rhubarb cobbler ($9), very nicely made and emphasized with slightly sour crème-fraîche ice cream and an herbal sorbet. They’ll also go for the hot chocolate cake ($9), which is one of those small, intense, flourless jobs, topped with pretty good strawberry slices for September, more of the crème-fraîche ice cream, and an enticing side garnish of roasted walnuts. But they’d really like the fritelles ($9): eggy, meltingly good doughnut holes surrounded by four sauces of chocolate, mango, blueberry, and perhaps honey or caramel.